Problem for Geert Wilders is his ideas are jaded
Hague Letter: In some quarters, his political obituary is already written
Dutch populist politician Geert Wilders, whose Freedom Party ended up in tenth place in the recent Euro elections. His party ended up an excruciating two places behind Party for the Animals. Photograph: Bart Maat/EPA
As he cosied up to Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini at a rally in Milan just days before the EU elections last month, one wonders if Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders had more than an inkling that his performance was about to fall so far short of his rhetoric – for the second election in a row.
While it’s true that, as Martin Selmayr, secretary general of the European Commission, observed, “the so-called populist wave was contained”, Le Pen’s Rassemblement National took almost 24 per cent of the French vote, while in Italy Salvini’s League surged from 6 per cent in 2014 to almost 34 per cent.
On the other hand, it’s all still a long way from Salvini’s pan-European grand coalition of the right, mainly because of the failure to deliver by Golden Dawn in Greece, the People’s Party in Denmark, and most notably Wilders, who, far from making gains, lost all four of his seats.
In the UK, Liz Fekete of the Institute for Race Relations suggested a trend: far-right parties did well in countries where they did badly in 2014, while in countries where they were already well established, such as France and Austria, the “surge” was not statistically beyond previous levels of support.
Even that, however, does not explain the rout that left Wilders’s Freedom Party in tenth place with just 3.5 per cent of the vote – an excruciating two places behind the Party for the Animals, which won one seat and 4 per cent of the vote.
As a result, the normally voluble Wilders, so visible in Milan, disappeared instantly once the exit polls showed a surprise national swing to Labour – so extraordinary that it was described by one of its own senior officials as “bizarre” – and the obliteration of the Freedom Party.
On Twitter, he opted for understatement, describing the result as “disappointing” and channelling The Terminator to promise that the Freedom Party “will be back” – before adding what sounded like a leftover 1980s advertising slogan: “We have the best ideas.”
The problem for Wilders, in fact, is the precise opposite: his ideas have become jaded.
Even to his committed right-wing base, his anti-Islam, anti-immigrant, anti-EU, harangues sound tired and repetitious. Why? Because they consistently fail to get the party anywhere near the reins of power, which, after all, is what politics is all about.
The 2017 general election was a perfect example: the Freedom Party performed well – gaining five seats and taking second place nationally with more than 13 per cent of the vote – but in the end gained no traction at home or abroad.
That’s because Wilders had promised Le Pen that the Dutch would be the first Continental country that year to “rise up” in support of the right as the US had done by electing Donald Trump and the UK had done by voting for Brexit – and second place, behind the sitting prime minister, really didn’t fit that bill.
Second recent failure
In that context, losing all four of his seats in the May Euro elections was his second recent failure to get with pan-European domination.
Similarly, although taking second place in 2017 was a creditable performance domestically, he was comprehensively beaten by Mark Rutte’s Liberals, which took some 21 per cent of the vote and then, rightly or wrongly, proceeded to exclude him from talks on a new coalition.
All that must have come flooding back when he saw his Euro seats disappear one by one, three of them snatched by the new, younger, better-looking, better-educated, better connected, more persuasive rightwinger on the block, Dr Thierry Baudet, founder of the Forum for Democracy, previously a right-wing think-tank until he realised its electoral possibilities.
What Wilders must have seen, even before electoral oblivion confirmed it, was that Baudet had identified a more broadly appealing anti-immigrant, anti-EU, space on the right by appealing to the naturally conservative Dutch middle classes.
Baudet described the forum, for instance, as “rational, cultured, serious, and focused on matters of substance” in contrast to what one media commentator described as Wilders’s “vulgarity and the plebeian character of his movement”.
In some quarters, Wilders’s political obituary is already written.
In reality, however, he’s not totally out of options – and Brexit, if and when it comes, could be the saving of him.
In that event, Wilders will be back in business in Strasbourg, albeit more modestly, alongside Baudet’s fledgling forum, and with everything to prove.